January 2017 saw me start a habit that changed my life: I started walking five miles every morning before breakfast. Two and a half years later, it’s time for a progress update and a statement of intent for the next step.
The situation in January 2017
In ‘Making time for fitness’, I wrote:
I often go for nearly a week without leaving the house, and might only achieve 2-3,000 steps a day. I spend far too much time sitting.
I was a typical freelance home worker, spending my hours chained to a desk. Exercise was something that happened at weekends or on walking trips, never during the week. When I penned that blog post, I considered myself slightly overweight but basically not too unfit; however, when I look back at the difference between now and then, it’s clear that my hiking ambitions were far beyond the capabilities my fitness afforded me. I was more overweight than I thought I was. Something had to change.
Stage one: Walk2017 and a standing desk
Stage one was simple: I participated in ViewRanger’s Walk2017 challenge, and set myself the task of walking 1,500 miles in the year. The key to doing this was forming new habits, and the main habit I formed was to walk five miles every day before breakfast. I did this without fail in every kind of weather. I kept at it until it was just something I did without thinking when I woke up.
At first the improvement in my fitness was slow, and I didn’t actually notice any significant difference until July 2017, when I hiked the 200-mile Jotunheimstien in Norway and found the hiking much easier and faster than I had expected. Being pleasantly surprised by my improved level of fitness has been a recurring theme on every walk ever since. I hit 1,500 miles on the last day of 2017.
Weight loss took far longer to kick in than an improvement in fitness because I didn’t change my diet in 2017 (it was a stressful time, due to my dad’s rapidly declining health, and I didn’t feel capable of making huge changes in my diet given the uncertainty). By the end of the year I was still significantly overweight. When I started logging my weight, in December 2017, I weighed 95kg. This was a bit of a wake-up call and led to more significant changes in the following year.
Anyway, the second part of the original plan was to upgrade to a standing desk (more accurately, a sit/stand desk). I was concerned about doing too much sitting and wanted to do something about it. I’ve found this to be a positive change, although I have no evidence it’s actually contributed to improved health or fitness; the key benefit for me is that I find certain kinds of work better when standing up. In practice, I tend to stand for around 60-70 per cent of the average day, and use the desk in its sitting configuration the rest of the time. This has also been a habit I’ve stuck with.
Stage two: diet and more hiking
So, early 2018. It was a bad time. My dad died in February amongst a string of other family deaths, and the stress and anxiety seemed insurmountable at times. I kept going with my daily walks, despite everything, but my overall health and fitness were not at their best. I didn’t spend much time in the mountains in the first half of that year either. However, I had something important to work towards: Hannah and I had set a date for our wedding in May 2019. I was determined to get on top of things before then.
From March 2018 I adopted the keto diet for around four months. The idea behind this diet is that you exclude all carbohydrates and sugars, eating more protein, healthy fats and fresh veg instead. Theoretically, your body goes into ‘ketosis’ and begins burning fat instead of carbs. It sounds extreme, and I found it extremely challenging, but it does work: I shed a lot of weight in a short period of time, and even after coming off the keto diet I did not regain more than a kilo of that weight. One of the hallmarks of keto is rapid initial weight loss due to the body’s water reserves being depleted, and only after this does fat burning take place. After returning to a ‘normal’ diet, the water weight comes back on more or less straight away, and I’ve read that the rest of the weight can also return if you aren’t careful.
Some keto adherents claim that this is a diet for life, but I’m not convinced about that. Some studies have indicated that people who exclude carbs in the long term put themselves at higher risk of heart disease and other ailments. There is a lot of pseudoscience (and plain old wishful thinking) out there around this diet, too, and I’ve formed the opinion that it probably puts adherents at a greater risk of disordered eating. Based on my experience I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone as a long-term thing, but I can tell you that sticking to it for four months led to a net weight loss of 10kg for me.
After coming off keto (a relief, let me tell you, as it made me incredibly grouchy) I took the opportunity to make permanent changes to my diet:
- Breakfast every morning is plain porridge, made with water and a dash of milk. This may sound boring but I actually find it delicious; this is my favourite kind of porridge.
- Lunch most days consists of large amounts of fresh veg and salad. I’ll usually eat a bowl of rocket, watercress, spinach, radishes, mushrooms, carrots, and more. I do mix it up by having wraps and other foods occasionally, but I love eating fresh salad so this is my staple lunch.
- The day’s main meal remained mostly unchanged in 2018, although in 2019 my wife and I have started to cut back on red meat (which we already didn’t eat in large amounts). I have no plans to go vegetarian, but my diet is substantially more plant-based than it was two years ago.
In addition to these new habits, I’ve been maintaining my hiking: morning walks plus the odd long-distance trail. Each backpacking route I do helps me shed a bit more weight. The most beneficial so far has been my February 2019 Cape Wrath Trail, which saw me lose around 4kg.
These simple changes have led to steady weight loss since I implemented them a year ago. As of June 2019 my weight is down to 74.5kg, an improvement of 20.5kg since my metaphorical low point in December 2019. However, I could still stand to lose a couple more kilos. My ideal weight is around 70kg, but I want to keep a little in reserve as I’ll be thru-hiking the Haute Route Pyrenees from July 2019 and I always lose weight on the trail.
Stage three: running
One problem I have is that I live in a flat part of the country. I can walk pretty much as far as I like without hitting any hills; I’m lucky if I encounter a 100m contour. This means that, to significantly improve my cardiovascular fitness, I need to up the intensity.
Until now, I’ve done no exercise apart from walking. Walking is great exercise, but I need to be fitter for the Pyrenees, and I still need to shift a couple of kilos.
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My wife and I have come up with a plan: we’ll go running on three evenings during the week, at 18.00 or 19.00. We’ve started with a couple of short runs around the village, the first 4.5km and the second 2.5km (which will most likely be the course we use for our regular runs). It has been a number of years since I did any running. I remember it feeling like bloody murder. It doesn’t feel so bad now, but that’s because I‘m the lightest and fittest I’ve been for at least ten years. I’m now at the point where I’m having to gradually replace all my clothes because my old ones are now tent-like on me.
To say I’m pleased with progress is putting it mildly. However, I remain vigilant; backsliding is possible at any time.
Things I’ve learned
- Changes stick best if you change one thing at a time, and start small.
- Forming habits is important.
- Everything in moderation, including moderation itself.
- Minor changes applied consistency over long periods of time can have a huge impact. You don’t have to make drastic changes to your life, but you do have to be consistent.